A Review of
The Ministry of Women in the New Testament:
Reclaiming the Biblical Vision of Church Leadership
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
I think I should offer a point of context before diving into a review of a scholarly work that will likely foster numerous pastoral and theological conversations in the coming years. Here goes: I am part of a Christian tradition that, in general, openly opposes the ordination of women for ministry leadership. We will appoint women to “direct” youth ministries and worship ministries and certainly embrace them as missionaries; however our standard operating procedure is to not accept women into senior roles of ministry leadership—or even style them with the moniker of “youth minister.” Now, to be fair, my tradition does not ordain men either, at least officially. In my tradition, being baptized and sensing a call to ministry is enough for many congregations. Obviously, you may have already noted the contradiction in our thinking—if all that is required is baptism and a sense of calling, why can women not be allowed to serve in as many ministry positions as men and even hold the title of “minister” (as another point, we do not use the title “pastor’). Welcome to my stream of weird “non-denominational” Christianity.
I realize that was an extended, and perhaps unnecessary introduction, especially for a book review. However, as I noted in the opening lines, I think Dorothy Lee’s new book The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership is going to be an important conversation piece as the man-made boundaries—and, yes, I mean that phrase both figuratively and literally—continue to tumble down the pulpit stairs, or at least are revealed as the misogynistic opinions that they are. Lee, an ordained female minister within the Anglican Church of Australia and Stewart Research Professor of New Testament at the University of Divinity in Melbourne, has really done her homework. She engages both male and female scholars, most of them on the moderate and conservative end of the Christian theological spectrum. Neither does she shy away from spending an entire chapter reviewing how this debate erupted in the early Church through analysis of preacher-theologians like Gregory of Nyssa and Tertullian as well as documents such as the Acts of Thekla and Gospel of Mary.
The strength of Lee’s approach is in that she does not argue from the outset that women deserve equal standing in the ordination conversation. Rather than approach this highly sensitive conversation from a pastoral perspective—that of women deserving ordination—Lee, instead, approaches this conversation from a perspective of biblical theology. Her argument is twofold: First, Dorothy Lee argues that the New Testament presents a unified vision for inclusive discipleship, where women and men followed alongside one another as they followed behind Jesus (p. 10). As Lee deftly notes, women were accepted into Jesus’ discipleship community and were allowed to learn from him alongside men (Luke 8:1-3). Also, we see individual examples of women demonstrating pious discipleship, such as the widow who dropped her last two coins into the collection basket (Mark 12:41-44) and the woman who sought healing from Jesus although she was an ethnic outsider (Matthew 7:24-31). Additionally, we see that women, most notably Jesus’ mother Mary, were part of the inaugural Pentecost gathering and were an integral part of early Christian missions in locations like Philippi (Acts 16:11-15) and Corinth (Acts 18).
Second, Dorothy Lee argues that the New Testament presents ordination as a privilege bestowed rather than a right reserved (p. 11). She notes that “the evidence of formal structure of leadership is unclear in the early days and most likely differed from what transpired in the following centuries” (p. 11). It is impossible to ignore that Phoebe is referred to as “a deacon [or minister] of the church in Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1), given that the same term is used to identify the seven ministering servants in Acts 6. It is also impossible to note that Paul mentions another 7 women by name in his greeting—each one referred to as a friend and colleague. And while numbers alone are not enough to move the needle, Lee notes, it is enough to challenge the microcosmic view that suggests that a couple of isolated passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy serve as a macrocosmic doctrinal position regarding women in ministry leadership. Dorothy Lee grounds her argument here in Peter’s homiletic citation to Joel 2 in his Pentecost sermon from Acts 2. Here Peter affirms that the Spirit will be the one who bestows gifting on whomever the Spirit selects and demonstration of those gifts will not be restricted due to gender or cultural norms. When the church ignores a gifted and called woman, or prevents her from exercising her Spirit-bestowed gifts, the church is claiming that it is not led by the Spirit.
As strong as Lee’s work is, there are three concerns that I have with it. First, the final chapter of exposition, which focuses on the General Letters (Hebrews-Revelation), does little to bolster either point of her argument. There is certainly a continued thread of the inclusive nature of discipleship, especially in Hebrews, and debate continues to rage over whether “the elect lady and her children” of 2 John 1 is a reference to a specific house-church led by a female patron or a metaphor for the church in Ephesus. These texts do little to validate the inclusive nature of ordination in the early church. Second, her chapter on non-canonical, early Christian writings could undermine her argument, as we see the debate over female leadership develop early on. Additionally, those who are opposed to women experiencing full access to the Christian faith will likely ignore these writings on “scriptural” grounds, noting the writings of Tertullian are not scripture. Finally, the tone of the work is generally conversational. However, this tone changes somewhat dramatically in the conclusion, which concerns me that some readers may interpret her rather pragmatic final words as arrogant hubris, on one hand, or indicting condemnation, on the other.
That being said, I am convinced that this is a vital book for the church and am deeply thankful that Dorothy Lee has composed this study with the care and dedication that she has. The exegesis is thorough and sound, demonstrating an engagement with a robust collection of conversation partners. She is gentle in the tone of her conviction, concerns about her conclusion aside. Ultimately, her twofold argument—that of the inclusive nature of the discipleship community and that of “ordination” being a privilege bestowed by the Spirit rather than a right reserved for a select few—is the strength of this book, a strength which makes this book a “must read” for anyone who desires for the church to be the shalom-bearing community that God birthed it to be in the ministry of Jesus and in the apostolic witness.